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Big Wars and Small Wars

In response to:

That War Again from the January 16, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to comment on the review of three of my books by the English historian, A. J. P. Taylor, in your issue of January 16.

Of course I appreciate his statement that I deserve respect as the first American historian to write critically about the Cold War, but I am puzzled by his prompt addition that “wise and scholarly views do not necessarily make a man a good writer or even an effective historian.”

Since no one has ever said that my books are not interesting and well-documented, my deficiencies apparently center on a fifty-year advocacy of the League of Nations, the UN and any other form of world organization that may save us from the final folly of one more world war. Nor am I reassured by Professor Taylor’s assurance that “It looks as though we are safe from a great war and will be troubled only by small wars.” I do not see how any student of the two ghastly world wars of this century, and of the Cold War, can feel safe about the future when an angry master of one nuclear arsenal can end civilization, or when one deeply inflamed local sore—like the Middle East—can cause a fatal escalation, especially when one or two super powers think they have “vital interests” involved. We have lately had an American President who proudly and stubbornly found fallacious reasons for half destroying a small country and a big fraction of its people, on the other side of the world.

I am not made much more comfortable, either, by Professor Taylor’s assumption that Hitler was just another German statesman—“In a confused and stumbling way,” he says, “Hitler, like most German statesmen, assumed that Germany should become the dominant power in Europe.” What is to prevent some other “statesman” with a maniacal will, ruthless genocidal methods and a limitless lust for loot, from laying much of the world in ruins again, at the best?

Aside from the list of books at the top of the review, I find no consideration in it of The United States and the League of Nations, 1918-1920 or The United States and World Organization, 1920-1933, two of my books, now being republished, in which I recorded the tragedy of our failure to make peace after World War I. Yet I think the reviewer must have scanned these heavy volumes for the review, since he was puzzled about where he had heard these views before until “Light broke in on me. Our English equivalent of Professor Fleming was the late Konni Zilliacus.”

I am honored by comparison with Zilliacus, whom I knew well and respect greatly, even though, according to Taylor, he never understood that the League of Nations was “dangerous when it did not work and even more dangerous when it did.” Zilliacus knew, along with many millions of his contemporaries, that the attempt to move beyond the anarchy of sovereign states was tragically, pitifully overdue. Yet it could hardly be true that “In Professor Fleming Zilliacus has come again,” since we began our labors at the same time and carried them on independently over the same half century. The revelation that suddenly came to Professor Taylor was quite late.

In an earlier review of my new book, The Origins and Legacies of World War I, also under scrutiny here, Arnold J. Toynbee began by saying: “This is a small book on a huge subject that is a matter of life and death.” Designed for college students and general readers, he hoped that it would also be read by high school students. Noting that, as in his larger books, “Fleming has shown himself to be a master of his subject,” Toynbee wrote that anyone who has lived through this half-century, “has studied it and has taken this experience to heart, will feel it laid upon him as long as he lives, to do all that he can to persuade his fellow human beings not to bring upon themselves another repetition of the catastrophe.” There is “a terrible similarity between the overture to World War I and the world’s plight today,” he warned. “These parallels send a shiver down the reader’s spine, and this effect of Fleming’s books is not the least of its many merits.”

By contrast, according to Professor Taylor, it is something I have done “in retirement” from my old lecture notes without “much originality or distinction.” He finds me guilty in the early part of the book of following the Sidney B. Fay “doctrine” that the rival alliances made war more likely and finally produced it. Then later Fleming “scraps his old notes and is converted to the views of Fritz Fischer.”

It is my view that this German historian demonstrated brilliantly the role of the militaristic and imperialistic elements in Germany, both before and during the war, but I was not converted to his views. I was never a member of the Fay “school,” inclining more to Schmitt’s view—as Taylor does—and I welcomed Fischer’s book for confirming the whole drift of mine, which attempts to take account of the views of all the leading authorities. I have never pretended to write an original version of the origins of World War I, but I have worked over many years to produce one that—in small compass—will stand the test of time, as all of my other books have.

Nor am I concerned about the constant “ups and downs of these rival views” and “These changing fashions [which] are reflected in the book which Professor Fleming has written,” or about the danger that future openings of British and French archives will upset the apple cart again. By this time the history of the origins of World War I is established, subject to the addition of a few details. My concern is that the impact of the last three chapters of this book—dealing with the sad aftermaths of the war and with the future—shall be felt, in the interest of our common survival; and I am encouraged on this score not only by the reaction of one reviewer that these chapters should be “devoured,” but by the responses of Arnold Toynbee and Gunnar Myrdal.

The latter said in a letter of January 12: “I have been reading the book with great excitement. I think it is an excellent book which should have the widest spread. I am trying to aid the spread by getting a Swedish publisher to make a Swedish translation.”

In the time that is left to humanity on this planet we may not be able to bring the nations into a functioning world community, but there is no other way of escape—not only from a fiery nuclear end, but from population suffocation and the constantly growing poisoning of the air, the soils, and the waters of the earth, including the oceans. All of these desperate problems are insoluble without action on a global scale.

Fortunately, there is a slim but hopeful chance that the growth of “functional” world organizations, in the United Nations and outside it—each to serve a broadly felt, practical need—may save us. It is this hope and method that we must nourish constantly.

If many of us should be sane enough to work consciously also for world organization on the political side, so much the better. Ever since 1914-1918 it has been blazingly clear that our little earth, which is daily a smaller unit for the purposes of war and commerce, must be made a unit for survival and welfare.

D.F. Fleming

Department of Political Science

Sociology and Anthropology

Simon Fraser University

Burnaby, B.C.

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